UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 Jul 2008

The ‘Nudge’ Phenomenum

Saturday’s Guardian has an article on ‘Nudge’, an idea developed by US economist Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists who “want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open“. This approach can be applied to social and economic areas such as healthy eating and pension schemes, but rather than the state mandating solutions which aim to bring about positive benefits to society or to individuals, people are made aware of the benefits of the preferred option, but are left free to make their own decisions. An example of this approach which David Cameron is exploring in the Conservative party return to power is a proposal that electricity bills should contain details of whether you are using more or less energy than other households in the area.  This subtle use of peer pressure is felt to encourage households to use energy more efficiently.

WebWatch Surveys

This has similarities with approach I’ve taken over the past ten years or so. A project called “WebWatch” ran a number of automated benchmarking surveys across a number of Web communities in 1998-9. After the funding had ceased the approach continued for a number of years, providing, for example, documented evidence of conformance with WCAG guidelines for institutional home pages based on use of an automated checking tool.  The approach was not intended to act as a league table, but to observe patterns across the community, identify and learn from best practices and also to discuss the limitations of the survey methodology (in this case it led me to a much better understanding of the flaws in the WAI model for addressing accessibility issues).

Survey of RSS Usage on Scottish University Home Pages

With the forthcoming IWMW 2008 taking place in the University of Aberdeen on 22-24thJuly 2008 it is timely to revisit the WebWatch approach across the Scottish higher educational sector, this time to monitor takeup of RSS which are embedded on institutional home pages.

The approach taken has been to visit Scottish institutes of higher education (based on the table provided on the Scottish Web Folk blog) using the FireFox browser. The RSS Panel extension will detect any embedded links to RSS files and the numbers of RSS links recorded.

The Findings

The findings are given in the following table.

Institution No. of RSS Feeds Thumbnail Comments RSS Feed
1 University of Aberdeen 0 University of Aberdeen No autodetect, but manual link to RSS news feed on home page Events feed
2 University of Abertay 0 University of Abertay No autodetect, but manual link to RSS news feed on home page News feed
3 Bell College 0 Bell College
4 University of Dundee 0 University of Dundee
5 University of Edinburgh 0 University of Edinburgh
6 Edinburgh College of Art 0 Edinburgh College of Art
7 University of Glasgow 2 University of Glasgow Two comprehensive news feeds, one of current news and one of an archive of news items dating back to October 2007 News
University in the news
8 Glasgow Caledonian University 0 Glasgow Caledonian University
8 Heriot-Watt University 0 Heriot-Watt University Manual link to RSS page, containing links to two RSS feeds, together with help information News
9 Napier University 0 Napier University
(Thumbnail not available)
10 University of the West of Scotland 0 University of the West of Scotland
11 Queen Margaret University College 0 Queen Margaret University College
12 Robert Gordon University 2 Robert Gordon University Two RSS feeds, one of current news and one of events News
13 Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama 0
14 Scottish Agricultural College 6 Scottish Agricultural College Seven RSS feeds on news and events, farm diversification, crop issues this week, research funding bids (internal use only), student recruitment news, undergraduate and postgraduate courses and training courses News and events
Crop issues this week
Farm diversification
Research funding bids (internal only) –
Student recruitment news
Undergraduate and postgraduate courses
Training courses
15 University of St. Andrews 2 University of St. Andrews Two RSS feeds, one of current news and one of events News
16 University of Stirling 0 University of St. Andrews
17 University of Strathclyde 1 University of Strathclyde RSS feed of press releases Press releases
18 UHI Millennium Institute 0 UHI Millennium Institute
19 University of the West of Scotland 0 University of the West of Scotland


It is perhaps disappointing to find that several Scottish institutions do not appear to be providing RSS feeds which can be found from the home page. A number of them do provide a feed, which is displayed using one of the conventional orange RSS icons to indicate its role, but do not provide an autodetect mechanism, which can enable software to process the RSS file in some way.  An example of how the Internet Explorer browser provides access to RSS feeds which have been autodetected is shown below.

The mechanism for providing such auto-detection is use of a single <meta> tag for each RSS feed. In the case of Robert Gordon University they used the following:

<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” href=”” title=”RGU News RSS Feed”>
<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” href=”” title=”RGU Events RSS Feed”>

Why, I wonder, aren’t all the institutions which have an RSS feed doing likewise? After all this approach can not only benefit end users, it also allows other automated tools, such as indexing robots, to find the feeds – and I suspect most institutions will want their news feeds and details of their events to be found.

Perhaps the reason for not doing this is a lack of awareness – in which case I hope that this post has addressed that issue. But it may be that changes to the content of the home page have to be approved by a committee – and suggestions for “inclusion of an autodetect link for RSS feeds” might be regarded as technobabble.  In which case show them the business benefits and show how other institutions are using this.

My final comment on the findings of this survey is to note how the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) have included links to seven RSS feeds, including not only the conventional lists of news and events but also various other feeds for content which is directly related to their agricultural interests.  Here SAC is making use of RSS as a syndication service in addition to an alerting service.

An image showing how these feeds can be displayed using the RSS Panel tool in FireFox.  I should hasten to add that on arriving at a page which has autodetectable RSS feeds the panel is displayed as a small transparent floating window – you need to open up the window in order to display the feeds as shown.

How usable this particular tool may be for processing more than one or two feeds may be open to question – I tend to just have one or two RSS feeds on my various Web sites, and have a dedicated RSS page which provides access to a full range of feeds. But I do think that the approach taken by the Scottish Agricultural College, of providing a number of structured resources (using RSS) is one to be welcomed. And I wonder why the Scottish Agricultural College seems to be ahead of the game. The talk I gave on Web 2.0: The Potential Of RSS and Location Based Services in Edinburgh in September 2006 didn’t have anything to do with this, did it?


The thumbnails of the institutional home pages were created by the Thumbshots thumbnails service.


9 Responses to “Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage”

  1. That was an oversight on out part. We have now updated our code for allow for auto-detection.

  2. Thanks for this. Have also added autodetect to our home page. Our news feed was available from the latest news page.

  3. […] at a couple of comments to the post Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage, (in which Brian Kelly tabulated the provision of RSS feeds from Scottish HEIs), it seems that […]

  4. […] has got quite a lot of attention. A couple of weeks ago Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus, UKOLN) highlighted the that few Scottish universities were doing this and having already delivered my session at BarCamp North East I wasn’t too surprised, but one […]

  5. […] also: Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage – a post by Brian Kelly from July 2008 encouraging HEIs to get into the RSS game. Does nudging […]

  6. […] year I published a blog post which provided a summary of usage of RSS feeds on Scottish University home pages. The survey was […]

  7. […] work was inspired, I think, by a post I wrote in 2008 on Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage which described an idea developed by US economist Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists […]

  8. […] described in previous analysis of usage of RSS feeds on Scottish University home pages such surveys can help to understand the extent to which emerging new standards and best practices […]

  9. […] Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage […]

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